by Austin Repath
It was an impulse thing — picking up a book at the sale table while waiting for a friend, glancing it while watching TV the next day. The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho was about an old trail that pilgrims used during the Middle Ages to get to some shrine in Spain called Santiago de Compostela where the bones of the apostle, St. James, had been found back in the first millennium. And the amazing thing is that even today in the 21st Century, people are still walking Camino
After reading the first three pages of Paulo Coelho’s book, I found tears running down my face. And I knew I had to walk the El Camino de Santiago, all 500 hundred miles of it.
The next day I walked three times around the block. The next week I walked three times around five blocks. For the rest of the summer I walked every day, trying to build up my couch-potato muscles. I bought the best walking boots I could find. A friend lent me a backpack. Another friend insisted that I take his old raincoat. “You’ll need it before the trip is over,” he said. I argued that I would be walking through sunny Spain, but he won out.
There was one additional thing I decided to take, despite the extra weight and the real possibility that it might break. A long time ago an uncle had given me an old violin. I learned to play, not too well, but enough to keep me company. Besides, I just felt it was important I take it with me.
I can still remember that first day walking over the Pyrenees. It was a long hard trek, fog hid the path. I thought I’d get lost even before I started. Maybe it was those thousands of other pilgrims across the ages that had walked this way before me. Who knows? Somehow my feet stayed on the path, and just in time for dinner I arrived at the ancient town of Roncesvalles, where the great warrior of my history books, Roland, fought his last battle.
In the weeks following, I trekked up glorious hills filled with tall trees, through lush farmland with vineyards almost as old as the hills themselves. I walked through small villages with cobblestones, cattle in the street, chickens all about, and at every house door (fortunately, tied up) a barking dog. Day after day as I walked, the sun beamed down, with never a drop of rain. The only useless piece of clothing in my packsack was that raincoat. Every evening, I would arrive at a refugio: special places pilgrims can stay overnight, sometimes in old monasteries. I remember one old monk giving us a delicious garlic soup for dinner. On a few nights when I wasn’t too tired, I’d bring out my violin and play some of my favourite pieces. I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish, but the music made me feel like I was part of the conversation, and my fellow pilgrims would clap and shout “Bravo!”
I began to lose my pot belly, my muscles grew stronger. I walked farther each day. People began to wave at me as I passed along the road. At first I wondered why. Then I realized that I wasn’t a tourist, not even a stranger. I was one who had been walking through their village for centuries. I was a pilgrim.
And slowly I began to see like a pilgrim. To see that everywhere I looked, in even the smallest town, there was not just a church, but a cathedral, a beautiful ornate structure that had taken generations to build. A father had laid the foundation, his son and his son’s son had built the walls, and their children had put on the roof. I was struck by the power that emanated from these works of art, shrines built with love and dedication and belief. I learned how to travel light, help other pilgrims and not damage or hurt anything along the way.
My memories are of early mornings full of joy and gratitude at being alive. I found myself filled at times with a warm feeling of goodwill to everyone I met. Was this what it meant to be a pilgrim? Then came the day when that heavy burden proved its worth. I was nearing the end of the pilgrimage, when it started to rain. But, thank God, I had my raincoat.
One morning after a heavy rainfall, the sun came out, and I opened my raincoat, and was amazed at what I saw in front of me. Hardly believing my eyes, I pulled out my camera, and took a picture of my shadow cast upon the road. But it wasn’t just my shadow. For what I saw in front of me cast by the open raincoat on the road was the image of the pilgrim, complete with hat, staff and cloak. It was as if I was seeing myself for the first time. I was the pilgrim. The next day tired but exalted, I arrived in Santiago de Compostela.
On arriving home, an artist friend took the photo of my shadow and put it on a poster, which currently is hanging in schools, libraries and the homes of friends and strangers.
About the author:
Austin Repath is a writer, pilgrim and philosopher. In addition to walking five hundred miles of the ancient pilgrim’s route, El Camino de Santiago, he has explored the sacred Isle of Iona, climbed the Tor at Glastonbury, vigiled on the island of Lough Derg in Ireland, stood on the Bridge of the Angels in Rome, gazed out across the Sea of Galilee, wandered through India, participated in the sun dance of the Plains Indians, pilgrimaged across America, and received Kalachakra Initiation from the Dalai Lama. Out of his experience walking the Camino came a series of reflections on life’s journey that offer signposts along the road of life. Instead of a book, he decided to use a card format to give the reader a more intuitive way of engaging the wisdom he had gleaned from his journey. To sample the cards visit http://www.pilgrimcards.com